You know what? I won’t lie. I’ve walked past First Slice‘s original spot on 4401 N. Ravenswood Avenue at least 100 times and never stopped in. When I’m in the neighborhood I’m either headed one direction to get my bangs trimmed or the other to get a malted milk cupcake at Angel Food Bakery. Me, the Dessert Mayor of Chicago, walking by a pie shop time and time again without so much as a second glance.
It was as if Chef Mary Ellen Diaz were speaking directly to me when she opened her newest not-for-profit bakeshop just a few blocks from my apartment at 4664 N. Manor Avenue. “Natalie! Eat our pie, learn our mission! Love us!”
Still, every time we take Teno to the park directly across the street Tony and I say, “I wonder what the deal is with that place. We should check it out.” And then by the time we wander over they’re closed, or Teno demands a Slurpee and we head off in the opposite direction.
This week end we changed all that. We spent the whole morning in the drop-dead gorgeous surroundings of the Lincoln Park Conservatory and as we drew closer to our stop on the Brown Line, Tony suddenly perked up. “Hey! That pie place! Let’s go get pie!”
We hopped off at Francisco and hung a left, straight into First Slice Pie Cafe, the cutest little pie shop this side of the… I don’t know where, I’m from Chicago. The bake case was positively stuffed with homemade pies – chocolate cream, apple, peanut butter, mixed berry, some wondrous creation called Polka Dot Pie featuring almond cream and dark chocolate drops… you name it and it was in the case.
Now, it’s a little-known fact that my first job was behind the counter of a Baker’s Square. I think defrosting those mass-produced cream pies and putting a fake egg wash on the fruit pies every day turned me off of pie for at least 15 years. I still remember watching the safety videos featuring massive machines pumping out whipped topping in the VICORP factory and thinking to myself, “French silk pie is dead in my eyes.” So seeing the imperfect crusts, the bubbly fillings, the hand-crumbled cookie crumbs atop the cookies and cream pie made my pulse race. This is some real-deal grandma pie and my mouth is in for a treat.
While Tony asked the counter staff what was in every sandwich and how many things were vegetarian (lots!) I ran around with my iPhone snapping pictures and taking note of all the vegan options for my pain-in-the-ass vegan friends. (I love you.) Two seconds after emitting an impressed “Hm!” about the reasonable prices I started reading about the mission behind First Slice.
First Slice is a not-for-profit, community-based kitchen where employees and volunteers work together to provide wholesome food to people living in poverty. The cafes help to fund the efforts, but the really interesting project is the First Slice shareholder program. Subscribers can sign up to receive three home cooked, local, organic meals a month. For every family subscription sold, First Slice is able to feed 20 hungry people per month. And thanks to this genius program, the needy actually receive the same healthy, nourishing meals as subscribers. It’s seriously so cool it makes me cry. I’m thrilled to also report that they take volunteers in their kitchen so you can expect BrutalSnack to be behind the scenes working off our sins in pie.
So good deeds aside, let’s talk about the pie. I had a slice of chocolate cream while Tony couldn’t say no to the peanut butter pie. Teno had a cookie bar because he is a total weirdo. I was very pleased to see my precious slice lovingly packaged in a triangle-shaped pie box. I hate when a triangular slice of pie gets packed in a too-big square box and then banged around on the way home. I’m a freak, I take pictures of everything I eat. I need it to be perfect. I also took note of the substantial savory menu – lots of sandwiches, soups, salads and homemade sides that will really hit the spot this Chicago winter.
My chocolate cream pie was rich and creamy – with deep, dark chocolate that wasn’t dumbed down like the French silk I grew up on. Tony’s peanut butter pie tasted just like raw peanut butter cookie dough without the impending doom of salmonella poisoning. I set down my fork, leaned back and patted my belly, “I wonder how their apple is,” I said out loud, picturing it with a scoop of ice cream melting on top. Twelve-to-fifteen different varieties are available each day and I intend to try each and everyone. In fact, I intend to volunteer to bake each one, then go to the cafe and eat it.
Over the past few years I have come to see baking as more than a hobby, and more than a gluttonous pastime. It’s my way of touching people and making their day better. Whether it’s a muffin for my co-workers, a table full of goodies at a non-profit bake sale or a slice of pie between friends. I can’t think of a better way to show love and compassion than to feed other people. That’s why First Slice has struck such a chord. I read an interview with the Lillstreet café location manager Ryan Cooper in which he said, “Rather than giving them [those in need] the leftovers of what others have tossed out, we’re giving them the first slice.” It’s a lesson for all of us, and a tasty slice of pie to boot.